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The Art of Becoming: A Conversation with John Picacio
Part 2 of an interview with Rick Klaw
April 2003

All illustrations © John Picacio
Heroes & Monsters: The Unofficial Companion To The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
John Picacio
Born September 3, 1969, in San Antonio, Texas, John Picacio is a freelance illustrator who uses painting and the collage and assemblage of mixed media to communicate about the world around him. A graduate of The University of Texas at Austin's School of Architecture, his illustration work graces the covers and interiors of major books, magazines, and other media. Clients include Random House/Del Rey, Penguin Putnam/Roc, Tor Books, Viking Children's Books, Golden Gryphon Press, iBooks, MonkeyBrain Books, Realms of Fantasy Magazine, Night Shade Books, Subterranean Press, Cemetery Dance Publications, Earthling Publications, and The Empire Theatre Company of Chicago. In 2002, he received the International Horror Guild Award for Best Artist and is a three-time winner in the book division of Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art. He lives and works in San Antonio, Texas.

John Picacio Website

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SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |

Who's your favorite cover artist? What artist's work have you enjoyed? Also designers such as Chip Kidd, who is much better known as a designer than as an illustrator.
I appreciate illustrators who do work where I can see the process of how they think through a problem, and I always get that sense when I look at Dave McKean's work. It may not always hit the mark every time in terms of execution, but in terms of concept and his level of thinking and how he's seeing the medium or the manuscript or the cd or whatever project he's working on, you can tell that he's thought through the piece in a meaningful way. I've always appreciated that about him. He's approaching the design process at a very, very high level consistently, and he's pushed that level of excellence for a long time now. I really appreciate that guy's work as a designer as well as an illustrator. Painfully, you can probably still see that even in my own work, his influence. I think it's receding with time, and slowly, but surely, I'm finding my own identity as an illustrator. I've read interviews with McKean where he's said that he was influenced by Bill Sienkiewicz and that this influence showed heavily in his work and of course Bill Sienkiewicz said he was heavily influenced by Neal Adams, and so on and so on. So I guess it's the process many have gone through before me, but the important thing is I want to find my own identity as a communicator in illustration. So I don't really feel any sense of pain in being compared sometimes to Dave McKean as long as my own identity continues to find its way to the surface. Nothing is created in a vacuum.

There are a number of illustrators that I admire so much. Guys like George Pratt, Kent Williams, Phil Hale. When you see those guys put paint on canvas... I mean, I'd give up body parts to be able to paint like those guys paint. You know there's a struggle there. You know that there's a lot of expenditure of energy there, but they make it look so easy, they make it look so effortless, and again, a lot of times with those guys, too, when you study their work, you can see the underpinnings of how they think. You can sometimes see some of the raw lines through the paint, and it's a lot like buildings. A lot of times with buildings I would look at them, even as a child, and I would appreciate the buildings more when they had scaffolding on them -- when you could still see the framework of process.

When they would get finished, I would cry a little bit inside; it would hurt me to see them finish, because I liked the whole idea of them "becoming" something, and that idea went away when they were finished. So, that sense of "becoming" is important to my own work. That's something that I'd like to continue to explore: that idea of becoming and that idea of flux and change and being able to see the level of thought and construction in a piece even when it's finally finished and have it be a finished piece, have it be a completed piece, but still be able to see all those underpinnings through it. A lot of times the stuff I don't emotionally respond to at all is the stuff where it's all pristine and refined and there are just no residual layers of construction for my brain to chew on.

I've had a similar conversation with friends when comparing LPs and CDs. Most CDs are just fine except for the old blues like Robert Johnson; it's too glossed over and you can't feel the pain of those old guys. You want to hear the little twangs and pops.
Yeah, that's a lot of what I'm talking about. There is something in what you're saying that I totally agree with. But it's about being able to follow how the artist is thinking through something -- like hearing the process of them working a problem out right there in front of you. And when you can still see the remnants of that in a piece, there's something completely engaging about that.

Are dreams ever a part of the work?
Totally. I am, as I said, somewhat obsessive about these assignments and I mean that in a good way; it's not meant in a destructive way at all. It's just that when I take on these assignments, I take them on fully and I really think of them 24 and 7. I find more and more that I'm juggling multiple assignments at the same time, but it doesn't diminish the process at all. A lot of times, I take these things with me when I go to sleep. This happened to me with architecture a lot, where I would deal with certain systems of logic -- structure, space, light, function -- that seemed very independent of each other and you were trying to find ways for them to be integrate successfully. There were times when I couldn't do it very well consciously, but somehow when I would go to sleep, these systems of logic would find their own ways of intersecting in a way that I'm not so sure I could have done on my own. I would take these things when I'd wake up and bring them as much as I could into reality. There's the trick: taking those dream ideas and trying to turn them into reality without losing the magic of the dream, so this definitely crosses over into illustration. I do that all the time, and I find more and more, it's so important to build that time to be able to dream and to be able to gestate on something. It's when you don't allow yourself that time that things get compromised.

Lots of your work appears to be influenced by your Hispanic roots, especially with Day of the Dead imagery, which is a recurring motif in your work.
I've honestly never thought consciously about my roots showing in my work. There's a very strong Chicano art movement here [San Antonio], but honestly, I don't really feel like I'm a part of that movement. I'm friendly towards it and sympathize with it, but I think there's a bigger world out there. I didn't grow up seeing the world through a narrow Chicano bias. I grew up more or less in a suburban lifestyle, but always still very conscious of myself as being Mexican-American. Where I think my work seems to converge with my culture is that Hispanics have a very strong affinity for issues of mortality and for a relationship with the dead. I don't think that my affinity for questions of mortality is strictly linked to my being Mexican-American, but if there's a strong cultural influence in my work, that's probably where it manifests most strongly. I think a lot of it has to do with the way that I combine materials in sort of a ritualistic way that evokes Mexican-American Day of the Dead imagery. In other words, my interest in questions of mortality and godliness and God and mythology doesn't derive only from my being Mexican-American, but as I go along, I think I'm finding my Mexican-American roots through the way I look at these questions. It's not so much that I came from Mexican-American roots towards these things; it's almost like I'm slowly discovering my culture because of these questions. So I definitely don't go into a given illustration saying that I want to make a statement as a Mexican-American. I don't think that's ever going to happen. I think my identity as a Hispanic will inevitably show through without me trying to wear it on my sleeve all of the time.

What advice would you give an artist that wanted to go into book design and illustration?
I actually have gotten approached by a few different educators to talk to kids about drawing and about illustration as a career. I have two little nephews and they're very young at this point, but even at this young age, they're both very interested in drawing from superhero comic books, which are the same things that I started with when I started drawing and reading. It's great for them to lose themselves in the drawings and just to have fun and just enjoy it. I didn't think about process and design when I was that young, but I think it's never too early to start thinking of yourself as someone who sees things, rather than someone who just represents things. I don't think that particular notion can ever start too early, so I always encourage kids to not so much say, "I want to be a great comic book artist," but to say, "I want to create my own comics." And to be able to realize early that their stories matter just as much as somebody else's stories or characters that they're carrying along. It's important for people to realize that the way they see the world matters, and to reinforce that in people from an early age. I want those stories to get out long after I'm gone, and so, to answer the question, if I see an illustrator or designer who says, "I want to do this stuff; what would be your advice?" I would probably say, have faith in your own way of seeing the world and continually re-evaluate that and judge it very, very cruelly and very, very critically. Always re-evaluate how you see the world and how you think through things because I think that's the greatest gift you can give to the rest of us.
The Fantasy Writer's Assistant

When did you first start doing comics, and was that the first thing you started drawing?
I was always, as a child, trying to draw and put together my own comics, but I would always start them and never finish them. I think part of the reason was I was always trying to tell stories through other people's characters. Say, like Batman or Daredevil or something of that sort. It wasn't until I got out of college though that I realized that I really had much more interest in telling my own stories, and not just building a lifelong career building someone else's franchise. I had this lifelong friendship with my buddy Fernando [Ramirez], and I think we both came to this realization around the same time, which was that our stories mattered just as much as other people's did. The stories that we had in our heads, the stories that existed in our dreams, were the things we needed to focus on, as opposed to trying to retell our own versions of the same tired Batman or X-Men story. So when I started doing my own comics, it never even occurred to me to do superheroes, because I really had certain stories of my own I wanted to tell. And so I didn't really do my first real comics until I was out of college, honestly. And consequently, when I started telling my own stories that was when I started to be a finisher….a creator who followed a vision all the way through to completion.

Why does a "cutting edge progressive" illustrator/designer live in San Antonio? Not New York, not the west coast, even Austin, which is a hundred miles away and much better known for its artistic community.
San Antonio's where I was born; it's where I was raised. I think the big thing is that I don't think of my work as being defined by where I physically live. Again, it goes back to the way I see the world and the relationships that I share with people. Those two things are the source material for my work. When I do a graphic novel, the relationship I have with this city, the love/hate relationship I have with San Antonio, that is gonna be a heavily relied-upon source of inspiration. That's a lot of what the graphic novel I someday hope to put out will be about: a personal mythology of San Antonio and how I see this city. But in terms of practical reasons why I live here, the cost of living you can't beat. It's so inexpensive here, and you can get things done here, especially if you're a lone wolf like me. I tend to be a very introverted person. I'm not the kind of person who needs to have other people in a studio around me to motivate me, and in a place like San Antonio, that works to my advantage pretty well. When I need stimuli, I know where I need to go in this city to find it. If I need to go to Austin, if I need to go travel somewhere, I can do that, but when I need to get work done, there's just not as much distraction here in San Antonio. It's a city with a lot of soul. That's one thing this town has that a lot of cities don't, although I've always said it's not the smartest city in the world, and I'll stand by that. But the beauty of this city is that, for me, I really enjoy living here because I don't have to. I can live in this city on my own terms and the city doesn't impose its terms on me.

On your homepage, your official biography mentions the forthcoming In Vivo: the Waking Dream. What's the book about, and when should we expect it?
In Vivo: the Waking Dream is that graphic novel I keep talking about. I've put three or four self-imposed deadlines on myself on this thing and it's never happened. And I think, for me, it'll be one of those things... it'll come out when it's ready to come out. I don't feel any pressure right now to get it out there. I think I'm having too much fun doing the covers. I have two different sketchbooks for this project that I feed information into, but at some point that information has to be synthesized, and I don't think I've put a significant level of time into putting that information back into a storytelling shape. It'll be a great event for me when it finally does come out, and it's gonna be one of those projects where, once I do that, I think I'll have closed a significant chapter for myself in terms of what I want to do with the comics medium. Hopefully it'll open more doors in storytelling for me, but I'm not really interested in doing stories told in periodical form. I've done that. Now, I want to tell stories in the comics medium in book form. I want something where it's just one volume that has a certain level of thought about how I see the world and how I see this medium.

Last year you won the International Horror Guild Award for Best Artist, your first genre award. Before you'd won the Golden Jalapeño, which uh... well before I get on to the impact of awards, what the hell's a Golden Jalapeño?
There's a group in San Antonio called the Communication Arts Society of San Antonio, now called the Creative Club of San Antonio, which is an absolutely horrific name. But they're a well-meaning bunch. It's a collection of graphic design professionals, advertising professionals, that every year give awards for what they deem to be the best in print and web design. I received the award for the design and illustration of a book called Occurrences: The Illustrated Ambrose Bierce, which is a graphic novel of Ambrose Bierce stories adapted by modern creators and put out by Mojo Press. It was a nice enough award. A piece of Lucite with a little golden jalapeño floating in the middle of it. Kinda cool, actually. But like all awards, it doesn't validate you.

What about when you won the IHG Award? Did it have more of an impact?
I was nominated two years in a row for the IHG and I won it the second year I was nominated. The first year I lost to Joel Peter Witkin. If you're going to lose, there's no shame in losing to him, I guess. He's only one of the most influential photographers of the last 30 or 40 years. So in 2002, I got nominated for the second year in a row and I fully didn't expect to win. But I won. It certainly didn't change the way I approach my work. I don't think any award could ever change the way I approach my work. But I found it interesting in that it changed the way certain people might have perceived me. Maybe in their eyes, perhaps, it validated me. I don't know. Whatever. I don't put a lot of thought into that stuff. I think the most I thought about it was maybe the night I won it, and then from there, it was history. It was time to move on. But I was so honored to win that award, and I was grateful to be a part of the fraternity of creators that won before me. That meant a lot to me, to have my name mentioned with those guys.

You've often referred to the fact that you're an illustrator, not an artist. What's the difference?
I've got a pretty strong opinion on this. I think "artist" is a badge of honor that you earn. I think "illustrator" is a role that you fulfill in society. "Artist", to me, is almost a sacred term, but unfortunately, it's so bastardized. It's one of the most bastardized words I can think of. So many people in so many different fields; fields of sport, fields of graphic design, fields of... anything where creativity is in any way evoked, people use the term "artist" so flippantly, and for me, that word means something really, really special. It's something to aspire toward. It means that you see the world in ways that the rest of us are not privy to, and you're able to, hopefully, open the rest of us up to be able to see these things, and to be able to open up new possibilities for the rest of us. Just because you can draw well doesn't mean that you're able to see well. It doesn't mean that you're able to open these doors for the rest of us. History is just scattered with so many fabulous, fabulous draftsmen, draftspeople, people who could draw really well, but I wouldn't necessarily consider those people great artists solely because they could draw well. I'm really more interested in the people that have personal and pertinent insight about the world and can convey that to the rest of us. Again, going back to guys like Dave McKean, I think he is one of those kind of people who does draw well, but more importantly, he consistently opens us up to new ways of seeing. Not all the time, but I think he's always trying to, and that pursuit is something I have a lot of respect for. I'm definitely proud to call myself an illustrator. However, I want to be an artist. I aspire to be an artist. Will I call myself an artist in public? If I do, it's by mistake. It's out of bad habit. I don't think it's something that you call yourself. I think you call yourself by what you do for society: are you an illustrator, are you a letterer, are you a writer? I think when other people call you an artist, it's a great compliment. I'm aware that a lot of people don't think of this on the same terms as I do. They consider an artist just to be someone who paints or draws really well, and that's fine. I accept that compliment on whatever terms people give it to me, but I know that when I call somebody an artist, it's not something that I will just call them just because they draw, write, or paint well. It's because their work transcends craft and they see the world in ways that I'm grateful for.

What does the future hold?
Hopefully more opportunities to work with more great authors and more great publishers. I really, truly love this career that I have right now -- doing covers for books and doing illustrations for magazines -- and doing those things on the terms that I've developed for myself. I hope I can continue to open doors for people. I really want to explore the comics medium some more with that graphic novel project we discussed earlier. I would leave myself open to other opportunities in comics. I definitely want to explore that medium more. There's a short film that's coming out in 2003 based on one of my comics short stories called "The Big Fish Story". I don't think I really have any need to go start working in film, but I didn't go into comics thinking I was going to be a book illustrator, either. So I guess you never know. Right now I think I just want to continue to work towards being a great illustrator and maybe someday, if I keep pushing, I'll be a great artist.

SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |

Copyright © 2003 Rick Klaw

Rick Klaw is not just a regular columnist for SF Site with the popular Geeks With Books, but also a reviewer, commentator, and interviewer for a variety of places including the Austin Chronicle, RevolutionSF, SF Weekly, and other venues. His Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century, collecting his columns, essays, reviews, and other things Klaw, will be available in September 2003 from Monkey Brains, Inc). As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. He thinks John Picacio is the snazziest dresser in all of fandom.

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